Fonkoze at the Global Microcredit Summit
The recent Global Microcredit Summit held in Valladolid, Spain brought significant new exposure to the innovations and accomplishments of Fonkoze. Anne Hastings spoke at the first substantive plenary (right after the ceremonial opening session), and followed that up with presentations at several workshops and finally well-received remarks at the closing plenary. Gauthier Dieudonne presented Fonkoze’s institutional action plan in a plenary alongside the head of CARE’s microfinance initiative, ACCESS Africa. (CARE is one of the largest humanitarian organizations in the world.) Finally, Fonkoze Diaspora liaison Katleen Felix chaired a workshop while CLM regional director Steve Werlin presented an important paper that he had co-authored with Anne. At this, the second largest gathering of the microfinance movement in history, Fonkoze was, among participating organizations working in a single country, the one that received the most exposure to tell its story. Not bad!
The reasons for this attention are some of the same reasons I have chosen Fonkoze as the focus on my book, and that are touched upon repeatedly in this blog. In addition, the objectives and ethos of the Microcredit Summit Campaign and its now retiring leader, Sam Daley-Harris, played a role. In short, the Campaign has long viewed microfinance as a tool for poverty reduction and social justice, and one that should be (a) combined with other social empowerment approaches (such as health education) and (b) given the full backing of civil society, governments and the media so that it can reach its potential. This contrasts with the worldview, which I find valid but less compelling, of microfinance being a kind of reengineered approach to banking that should be thought of first and foremost as a profit-making business that can lead to “financial inclusion” of the poor. This second worldview, which dominates most of the other conferences and papers in our field, is obviously less consistent with Fonkoze’s ideas of “accompaniment”, social impact monitoring, and deep poverty outreach than the one promoted by the Campaign. So, this was Fonkoze’s moment to shine. (My employer Grameen Foundation also had a good Summit, which included my own plenary paper, another major paper by Camilla Nestor and David Edelstein of my staff on technology and microfinance, and lots of activities related to our Bankers without Borders volunteer program.)
And Fonkoze did shine. The opening plenary, like all that were to follow, began with a presentation of one of the major papers commissioned by the Campaign that were combined to form a book published there: “New Pathways out of Poverty” (which can be ordered from its publisher, Kumarian Press). The ten-minute presentations were followed by commentary on the paper by a panel of experts. Each commentator had eight minutes to speak. The first paper was “Beyond ‘Ethical’ Financial Services: Developing a Seal of Excellence for Poverty Outreach and Transformation in Microfinance.” The author, Frances Sinha, was commissioned to write it by a coalition of microfinance leaders who felt that a kind of “certification” or “good housekeeping seal of approval” was a necessary complement to the “consumer protection” initiative being spearheaded by the Smart Campaign housed at the Center for Financial Inclusion. (Full disclosure: Anne serves on the Steering Committee of the Smart Campaign and has made full compliance by Fonkoze a priority, I serve on the advisory board of the Center for Financial Inclusion, and I was an early member of the “Seal of Excellence” steering committee which Anne has now joined. Also, the Seal is an outgrowth of a paper I wrote in 2008.)
There has been some predictable skepticism about the “Seal” initiative. Practitioners worry about another certification to apply for (and the costs involved). Other, related initiatives are concerned that this might eclipse theirs. Those who are most worried about the shortcomings of and/or attacks on microfinance fear it is “too little, too late.” All these arguements have some merit. Still, the Summit was meant to be the big “coming out party” for the Seal. If it fell flat, the concept might never be heard from again. Everyone knew what Frances Sinha would say since her paper was given to everyone upon registration and an advanced draft had been on the internet for comment for many months.
What the delegates were most eager to hear was the endorsements and/or criticisms from three respected practitioners who would speak after Sinha. Chris Dunford and John De Wit spoke first, both without Power Point presentations – thank God! They acknowledged the concerns and challenges in making the Seal an industry standard, but pivoted to argue that it was still a much-needed industry response and that it was meant to reinforce rather than compete with other initiatives. I was sitting next to one of the most respected microfinance leaders in India and I could feel his discomfort with the idea growing throughout the session. Finally, Anne stood up and delivered a thoughtful and impassioned defense of the Seal to the 2,000 delegates, and why everyone should get behind it. As Anne finished her remarks and moved to her seat to loud applause, the Indian leader said, to no one in particular, “That was a great speech. She really made the case!”
As an outgrowth of how well Anne’s speech was received, she was asked to speak at the closing plenary alongside various dignitaries, the outgoing and incoming directors of the Campaign, and two Filipino microfinance leaders (both women, thank goodness, since male presenters dominated most of the conference — like they do most every conference, I’m afraid). I was with Anne shortly before the closing session and she was unclear about exactly what she was going to say. Apparently, shortly before she was to speak the incoming leader of the Campaign, Larry Reed, asked her to focus her remarks on one of the seven priorities he sees for microfinance (and one of the distinctive features of Fonkoze): social performance monitoring and management. Anne did a great job, speaking at length about the benefits of putting full-time “social impact monitors” at 12 branches (with a goal of having one at every branch some day). This was a step that went far beyond what most microfinance institutions have taken, even those that profess a commitment to properly balancing social and financial objectives. She mentioned Grameen Foundation’s social performance tool, the Progress out of Poverty Index, which Fonkoze uses and has built upon. The other highlight of the closing plenary was Larry Reed’s impassioned remarks that demonstrated his commitment to continuing to advance the Campaign’s core themes, and also his intention to do it with his own distinctive style that will be a departure in some ways from how Daley-Harris led the effort.
One final aspect of the Summit was that it was the third time in a few short months when Grameen Bank founder and Nobel laureate Prof. Muhammad Yunus and Anne Hastings were providing leadership alongside each other to the microfinance industry and its various stakeholders. (The others were in Chicago, at a September conference hosted by DePaul University, and in Haiti in October – a visit that I was part of and blogged about.) Obviously they are two leaders whose ethics and results have fascinated me for years. It is encouraging to see how the two of them are taking an iucreasing interest in each other’s work, and how the wider movement sees them increasingly as “leaders among leaders”.
Anne and I took part in a two-day retreat for the Seal of Excellence Steering Committee on the days immediately after the Summit concluded. The group made a lot of progress, though there are many challenges ahead. I was surprised by how organizations that often clash on style and substance put their agendas aside and worked effectively towards having the Seal succeed. The night after that retreat ended, Anne and I shared a bottle of wine I had brought from the U.S. and then went out and had tapas (we were in Spain, after all) and more wine. She was in good spirits, despite a lingering cold. We debriefed on the conference and the retreat, and I delved into some topics that had come up in the research for my book.
With the hugely successful social innovation known as microfinance coming to grips with troubling issues such as high-flying (and mostly male) egos, political controversy, highly-paid expatriate bankers leading a growing number of microfinance institutions (MFIs), and the occasional descent into hypocrisy and (yes) greed, it is encouraging to see one country whose leading MFI is the creation of an indigenous poverty activist with no banking experience whose worldly possessions could probably be contained in a single steamer trunk.